How to choose a broadband provider

The five questions you need to ask

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The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is cracking down on misleading broadband advertising, in a bid to make sure customers understand what they'll actually pay.

According to research conducted jointly with Ofcom, fewer than a quarter of people can work out the monthly cost of a service after watching an advertisement.

From the end of October this year, though, broadband ads which include price claims must show the total up-front and monthly costs.

"The findings of our research, and other factors we took into account, showed the way prices have been presented in broadband ads is likely to confuse and mislead customers," says Guy Parker, ASA chief executive.

"This new tougher approach has been developed to make sure consumers are not misled and get the information they need to make well-informed choices."

How, though, do you make a decision on which provider is best for you? There are dozens of suppliers, large and small, all with a range of different service packages. Picking the best one is all about asking the right questions: we look at what you need to consider.

What speed will I get?

For most users, 17Mbps - the basic standard offered by most providers - is more than enough. Heavy users, though may want more. BT offers speeds of up to 76Mbps, as do the other suppliers which use its network. Sky has its own network, offering up to a whacking 200Mbps.

Whether or not you need this depends on your type of usage. At 17Mbps, for example, a movie takes more than seven minutes to download, but just five seconds at 76Mbps. Gaming, too, can be a frustrating process at slow speeds. And if you're expecting to have several people using the connection at the same time, a higher speed will mean less time spent buffering.

Bear in mind, though, that the advertised speed isn't necessarily what you'll get. Your service provider should be able to give you an estimate of actual speeds in your area. You can also get an estimate by entering your postcode into a speed checker such as USwitch's - and ask the neighbours for the most reliable information of all.

What download limit do I need?

The download limit is the amount of data that you can transfer to your own PC. Packages available run from as little as 1GB a month up to around 40GB, with some offering unlimited downloads.

As a guide, 1GB equates to around 1,000 emails - but only two movies, or one if it's in high definition. Watching online video, such as BBC iPlayer or YouTube, requires about half a gigabyte per hour.

What's the price?

This won't be such a tricky question to answer come October, when advertisers will have to make their costs clearer. In the meantime, TalkTalk has already rolled its prices into one.

Make sure you're aware of the cost of line rental as well as the actual service, and factor in any up-front costs into the length of the contract.

Are the special offers worth it?

The same principle applies to incentives. For example, if you're offered a £120 voucher that you'll actually use, that's effectively knocking £5 a month off the price over two years.

Most providers offer a cheap introductory rate to tempt you in, which then rises after six months or a year. Again, add up the total you'll be paying over the contract period and divide by the number of months to give the true monthly cost.

What if something goes wrong?

Ofcom publishes figures on complaints, which show that EE has the highest proportion, followed by Plusnet and BT. Virgin and Sky have the fewest. The commonest issues are faults.

But it also matters how those problems are dealt with: there's nothing like hanging on the phone for hours, only to be met with a customer service agent who has nothing helpful to suggest.

A recent survey from Which? found that John Lewis Broadband, Zen Internet, Utility Warehouse and Plusnet were the UK's highest scorers for customer service.

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